LIFE & LEISURE IN EARLY LOS ANGELES 1860 – 1910

Updated: Oct 18


In 1860, California had been a state for only a decade. The gold rush brought many settlers to the San Francisco Bay Area, which already displayed conspicuous signs of wealth and culture imported and adapted from the East Coast. Most of Southern California, by contrast, was open, unsettled, land. Los Angeles was no more than a small town of simple adobe houses, ranches, and dirt roads. Land was essentially worthless—so much so that in 1858, when merchant Harris Newmark was given the choice between two loads of firewood or one hundred and ten acres on the outskirts of town in payment of a debt, he chose the firewood without hesitation.1 Between 1860 and the turn of the twentieth century, however, Angeleños developed extensive citrus farms and vineyards, and trade growth began to take off. Los Angeles underwent a major transformation in the American imagination. By 1900 it was an idyllic destination and was attracting droves of tourists, as well as immigrants from the East Coast. Both came to profit from the mild weather. The city’s population at the turn of the century had just topped 100,000, over sixty times what it had been in 1850.2 From the beginning, Southern California was a land of opportunity with just a hint of danger, which made it fascinating at a distance but also colored the daily lives of residents. Because of the vastness of the sparsely populated land, Angeleños in the second half of the nineteenth century had a significantly different attitude towards space than their East Coast counterparts. Standing on Bunker Hill, today the financial district of downtown Los Angeles, a person in the early 1860s would see nothing more than a few rose-covered adobe cottages, shaded paths, horse-drawn carriages, and open spaces with groves of trees beyond. As Sarah Bixby Smith wrote of her childhood in Los Angeles in the 1870s: “The eyes could follow across flat lands, treeless, except for a few low-growing willows, to far blue mysterious mountains. It was a very empty land, empty of people and towns, of trees and cultivated fields”.3 Early Angeleños also had a different attitude towards time, thanks to the greater distances between neighbors, the longer daylight hours, and the milder weather. They had more time to farm, more time to socialize, but not much yet in the way of organized leisure activities or entertainment. While there are abundant formal histories for this era, scholarship covering daily social life and leisure is somewhat limited. This article uses secondary, as well as numerous primary sources to paint a portrait of how people spent their time in 19th century Los Angeles, with a focus on common citizens who had recently immigrated from the American East Coast.

1850s Los Angeles was a small town with little communication with the outside world. Even though settlers and fortune-seekers flooded into San Francisco during the gold rush, the merits of Southern California were unknown except to a few. The town’s tiny population was made up of Mexican ranchers, disappointed miners from the north who were the cause of much trouble, local Native Americans, and con men and thugs who preyed on the ranchers and merchants. The Bella Union Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was the area’s social headquarters throughout the ‘fifties. Early settler Mary Ann Standlee, born of an English father in 1860, described in her memoirs the remoteness of Los Angeles in that era, as well as the seemingly vast expanses of time:

By our ranch there were only a few families living in that part of the country (Pico Rivera). In our country school house there were not many children at first. Now I look back on those times with fond memories. Looking back to pioneer days I was so young at that time that I did not realize what pioneering meant. Much of the hard work was done by the cholos of which there were many. Helping my father herd his cattle I learned to ride horse back. My-oh-my how we did ride through the mustard higher than our heads and up and down the river. We had plenty of time to ride. 4 The Americanization of Southern California began in earnest in 1868— the year the first bank was founded, the first artesian well tapped, and the construction of Southern California’s first railroad begun, between Los Angeles and San Pedro. The breakup of the great ranchos—most significantly in 1868 that of early land baron Abel Stearns’s extensive holdings across Southern California—paved the way for the first land boom. Former rancho land was subdivided into towns and farms of twenty to one hundred and sixty acres and offered for sale to settlers at low prices. With the opening of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869:5 “easterners started hearing surprising news of the west. There was more to Southern California than parched land and desperados. Most surprising was news that while Easterners were shivering in freezing winter weather, Californians were basking in warm sunshine. Astonishing! California suddenly seemed like a paradise instead of hell on earth”. 6

Many families came from Northern California and the East after the Civil War to take advantage of small farm opportunities, great weather, and a good lifestyle. The Pico House hotel opened in 1869. By 1874 competition had developed, including the Clarendon Hotel, the United States Hotel, and Lafayette Hotel. In 1875, the year before the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Los Angeles, 284 steamers and 116 sailing vessels were anchored in San Pedro. That year 11,984 passengers arrived and 8,200 departed. For the twenty years from 1855 to 1875, there was considerably more tonnage of freight in imports than exports.7 When the Southern Pacific Railroad finally connected Los Angeles to the transcontinental system in 1876, the stage was set for explosive growth and an eventual transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial society. That year, the value of lots soared from $10 each to $150 in the city of San Fernando, the San Fernando Valley’s first organized community, established just two years prior.8

Real estate agents capitalized on the image of Los Angeles’s idyllic weather, as well as appealing to romantic notions of working the land. Grider and Hamilton, turn-of-the-century real estate agents, exclaimed in a 1905 advertising brochure that:


“the climate delights of the land of sunshine are such as to implant in the bosom of every man and woman who comes here an ardent desire to own a home, to live among the orange blossoms, literally to sit under one’s own vine and fig tree, in short to live as close as possible to mother nature consistent with the burdens and exactions of workaday life”. 9 While the fantasy painted by Grider and Hamilton may have been a pleasing vision when they published it, Los Angeles was growing into a city, ranchero culture from earlier days was a different story of self-sufficiency. The ranchers were their own butchers and bakers. They ate what they raised themselves, drank what they distilled, and wore clothes sewn by their wives. Husbands and wives worked their own land, often with the help of Californio and Indian laborers. Writing in the 1880s, philosopher Josiah Royce described the character of mid-century Californians as “careless, hasty and blind to social duties [but] on the other hand as cheerful, energetic, courageous and teachable”.10 Struggle—and its reward—was a popular theme among early settlers to Los Angeles. Land was seemingly infinite at that time, ripe for the taking by anyone industrious enough to tame it. Thirty-five-acre plots were offered free to anyone who would improve the property by investing two hundred dollars over the course of a year—although land with a reliable water supply was more valuable and came at much higher prices. Los Angeles journalist and ethnographer Charles Lummis described the Yankees’ arrival in a largely Latino settlement, where “they made vital changes in the [existing] commercial and municipal methods.” According to Lummis, “They joined hands in the struggle for law and order and after a wild and wooly decade they succeeded measurably well”.11 Whereas immigrants to Northern California might have been hoping to strike gold and get rich quick, success in Los Angeles was slower but also more reliably achieved through work and a will to tame the land. Settlers typically arrived with little but soon made their own way. A farmer’s lifestyle did not require much capital, and careful farming did not usually carry much risk of loss. The East Coast immigrants also brought with them updated farming practices that replaced the traditional methods of working fields by hand. Farm productivity increased several times over as farmers hitched teams of animals to their plows, harrows, harvesting machinery, and wagons. German-born American journalist Charles Nordhoff claimed a family could “live comfortably, secure, and independent after some years on eighty acres”. 12


Farmers were constantly building and improving. A typical small farmer’s improvements aside from his home might include sinking an artesian well, raising fences for animals, constructing outbuildings, plowing fields, and planting crops. According to A.T. Hawley, a settler in the 1870s, “Settlers are improving and adorning their homes with fruit and ornamental trees and intend to be friendly rivals with their neighbors in the matter of making the new settlement attractive and prosperous”. 13 While the consistency of the weather most of the time facilitated farming, Los Angeles’s climate was dry, and the unreliability of the water supply shaped the types of farming that did succeed on larger scales. Southern California’s agricultural industry was made possible by dependable water sources such as reservoirs and irrigation ditches (zanjas) that turned dry land into wealth-producing soil. Cattle raising had been a primary industry in Southern California in the first half of the 19th century, but it almost came to an end with the drought and famine of 1863-64. By the mid-1870s the great cattle, sheep, and grain ranches of the 1860s were things of the past. Much more successful were the citrus orchards and vineyards first introduced by Mission padres and eventually planted throughout Southern California.14 The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Los Angeles opened the transportation artery that brought people and prosperity. In the late 1880s new refrigerated rail cars allowed Angeleño farmers to ship fruit across the country, and Los Angeles quickly became the region’s trade center. Oranges, more than anything else, created modern Los Angeles. Citrus farming was good business and had just a touch of exoticism that appealed to the American imagination.

Early Angeleño Jackson Graves expressed a characteristic settler’s love for the land and its productivity, writing in his memoir, Seventy Years in California (1927): Let us appreciate, enjoy and defend until our dying day, this glorious land, unswept by blizzards, untouched by winter’s cruel frosts, unscathed by the torrid breath of sultry summer, and land of perpetual sunshine, where roses, carnations, heliotrope and a thousand rare flowers bloom in the open air continually, where in the spring time the senses are oppressed by the odor of orange and lemon blossoms, and where the orchards yield a harvest in returns as to be almost beyond human comprehension. 15 Los Angeles Ranger and historian Horace Bell also extolled the forgiving nature of the land in Southern California, writing that “the face of the earth would smile whenever touched by the hardy pioneer and crops of corn would grow almost without labor”.16

Not only were crops abundant, but even the size of the produce was a marvel. Settler James Guinn, who later became superintendent of Los Angeles City Schools, wrote to his brother and sister in 1870 about the size of oranges, apples, and grapes grown in Los Angeles: “Don’t ever take a pleasure trip east to see what man has done till you come west and see what God has done and man too for the Central Pacific railroad was a perfect marvel to us all”.17 Guinn’s boast reveals the equal pride Southern Californians took in the natural abundance and productivity of the land resulting from their own efforts.

At the same time, small farming had its risks and was by no means a get- rich-quick scheme, especially for the inexperienced. Hawley described farming hazards and success as a matter of patience and perseverance: Men buy some acres of land on time and scratch the surface with poor apology for a plow, sow their seed and wait for a harvest going into debt in the mean time for their meat, butter, milk, potatoes and everything of which the colonist raises for home consumption. The men who utilize their land and live within their means and wait patiently for their orchards to arrive at maturity, their livestock to multiply and replenish, their alfalfa fields to become rooted, succeed in LA County. 18 A case in point of perseverance was Jackson Graves, for whom calamity struck several times before he achieved the returns “almost beyond human comprehension” recalled so fondly in his memoir. In 1882 Graves and his wife bought a farm in Alhambra. It was planted with six and a half acres of oranges, lemons, and limes; however, a freeze soon killed the original trees. Graves bought more adjacent land and had thirty acres planted with Valencia oranges. This crop flourished for several years, but the struggle for water was constant. Graves’s water source that came down from the San Gabriel Mountains slowed to a trickle because of heavy use by others upstream. Consequently, he acquired more water rights and ran a small tunnel for his supply, but this source too dried up. Next, Graves purchased nearby land with water rights, drilled wells, and ran another small tunnel. This source produced a surplus, and Graves was able to sell water to the city of Alhambra. 19